The Credit Hours of Local Comparative Politics, Just for You …
O’Fallon, Mo., is considering expanding its city council in response to rapid population growth. If the 75,000 estimated population is correct, I believe that would make O’Fallon the largest municipality outside of the city of St. Louis itself in the greater St. Louis area. Someone should feel free to correct me if I am wrong, but my guess is that an Illinois-side city may be larger, but no Missouri municipalities are. Anyway, this got me thinking about the best set-up for a local government. There are, not surprisingly, many different options in our area. Kirkwood and Webster Groves have at-large councils that do not have individual wards. Every councilmember (six in both) represents the entire city. The plus of this is that each official gets to consider the good of the whole city when making decisions. The converse of that, and the reason I don’t like at-large seats, is that each official gets to ignore those minor, pesky issues that nobody wants to deal with. Who has to return the phone calls of the neighborhood crank if nobody represents that person specifically? And, sometimes, those neighborhood cranks are right about something.
O’Fallon is considering many options, mostly involving expanding the number of wards. Perhaps they would be like Wildwood, which for some insane reason chose to have eight wards with two councilmembers each. Florissant gets a little better, with nine wards but with just one rep. per ward. University City, where I proudly live, has only three wards but with two reps per ward. That system — three or four wards with two reps per ward — is used by a number of cities in St. Louis County. The city of St. Louis is, of course, the champion of too many elected officials, with 28 alderman for 28 (now very small) wards and 11 other citywide elected officials.
Whatever O’Fallon chooses to do will be affected by its city class, because charter cities have more authority to form their own style of government than other classes. In my opinion, cities should have fewer elected officials in general but pay them better to justify the work they put in. I should be clear that I do not mean “pay them better” in a dramatic sense, just higher stipends to encourage more residents to consider getting active. In my opinion, cities in the general range of 25,000 to 75,000 people should have a full-time city manager, a mayor elected citywide and paid a part-time salary of around $10,000, and four wards with one councilmember each making around $5,000 a year. One councilmember would be elected chair each year from within the body — I am looking at you, city of St. Louis, and your silly president of the Board of Aldermen position. The mayor would vote as a regular member of the council, not just sign or veto bills like governors or mayors of large cities. The most important thing O’Fallon could do is upgrade from a city administrator to a city manager, which sounds redundant, but the latter actually has more power and authority than the former.